Public Infrastructure: An Advantage for the 1%?
BY: DIYA CHADHA, CONTRIBUTOR
Throughout his presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders has been known to harp on the fact that America’s infrastructure is in shambles. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton also presents a detailed initiative in terms of public infrastructure, but lacks the large funding that Sanders proposes. And with a D+ infrastructure rating, there is no doubt that the United States requires increased funding and maintenance in order to compete with other first world countries like Japan, France, Switzerland and more. According to the ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the D+ value puts American infrastructure at an “at risk” evaluation, meaning that it is sub-par, highly deteriorated, and close to the end of its service life. Despite the candidates’ plans to create millions of new jobs and increase the size of the disappearing middle class, Sanders’ Rebuild America Act and Clinton’s support of a reauthorization of Obama’s Build America Bonds program undermines some of its own goals by directly benefitting the rich and 1%, rather than the middle class and poor.
Sanders’ main proposal to combat the nation’s infrastructure problem is The Rebuild America Act. His plan outlines a budget of $1 trillion to be spent over the next 5 years in areas such as airports, bridges, and mass transit. Ideal in theory, Sanders claims that the act will also create 13 million decent-paying jobs. Clinton, on the other hand, allocates just $275 billion (also over the next five years) to public infrastructure. With a much smaller budget, many believe that Clinton’s plan will not solve the problems that exist within infrastructure. This holds especially true when considering the estimated $3.6 trillion worth of investment needed by 2020, as calculated by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Even though public infrastructure projects will create many jobs, very few of them will actually take on poor, previously unemployed workers, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of infrastructure requires highly-skilled, educated workers. A majority of the jobs created by public infrastructure deal with heavy and complicated equipment, requiring hours of training. According to The Heritage Foundation, 20% of workers on highway, street, and bridge projects work with these tools, yet less than one in 200 unemployed workers have had experience with them. So, even though investment in infrastructure will create many – an expected 13 million – jobs, they aren’t practical ideas for those who really need them.
Second, public works jobs seem to “promote” the reallocation of jobs, rather than the creation of new ones. Even if unemployed workers are trained for these new jobs, it is unlikely that they will actually be hired because federal contractors are more likely to recruit laborers from the private sector, instead of finding and training new employees. James Sherk, Senior Policy Analyst of Labor Economics in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, finds that “Infrastructure projects require more physical and human capital than brute labor. Consequently, most workers hired on new federal construction projects would come from existing projects—not unemployment lines. Additional infrastructure spending would do little to reduce unemployment.”
Geography and Gentrification
The importance of safe and effective public infrastructure is clear to see – the ability to travel from place to place with ease allows people to reach their places of work, find food, access hospitals, and more. It should be noted that social mobility and access to public infrastructure are correlated. Economics professor at Harvard University, Raj Chetty, finds that the cities with the top public transit systems, and therefore the best physical mobility, also have the greatest opportunity for social mobility. These cities are some of the most well known in the United States: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C, and Seattle. However, the affects of gentrification in these areas end up largely benefiting the upper class, thus making social mobility hard to achieve.
The process of gentrification can be easily seen with accessibility to healthcare and hospitals. According to the Post Gazette, “At a time when research shows that being poor is highly correlated with poor health, hospitals and doctors are following privately insured patients to more affluent areas rather than remaining anchored in communities with the greatest health care needs.” At the same time, low-income areas fortunate enough to have efficient and modern public infrastructure, especially hospitals, draw the attention of the upper-class. Those with money move into these low-income areas, effectually driving up rent and the overall cost of living. As a result, the previous residents can no longer afford to live there and must move out – leaving behind the hospitals, train stations, and more, that were originally created for their benefit.
Increased spending in public infrastructure is necessary to advance the United States in the long run, but it comes with a cost. Therefore, it’s important that changes are made so the more positive impacts of infrastructure are felt by people of all socio-economic statuses.